Hume's Philosophical Development

Hume's Philosophical Development

Hume's Philosophical Development

Hume's Philosophical Development

Excerpt

Men of David Hume's time who were primarily interested in psychology, society, and political science were encouraged by the dramatic accomplishments of natural philosophers. The rapid advances in knowledge of the physical world were recognizably dependent upon the scientific method, a complex form of intellectual activity which had not been invented but had evolved, and which was still imperfectly understood even by those who were using it with brilliant effect. The prospect of adapting this method to the study of human nature was enticing. It had already, fifty years before, attracted Thomas Hobbes, a towering figure whose shadow falls across the greater part of the eighteenth century. It seemed that morality, society, and political life could at last be based upon a sound, scientific understanding of human nature. What had appeared in the eighteenth century to be a glorious opportunity reappears in the twentieth as a last desperate chance. Anyone wishing to take that chance will learn from the eighteenth century some lessons which have been forgotten and also find that some roads which are still being travelled today were even then discovered to lead nowhere.

Eighteenth-century optimism was not justified. Confidence in the methods of natural science to solve human problems was misplaced. Sooner or later applied science would supply the means of securing almost any end which men might choose. But on questions of the wisdom of the choices science must remain for ever mute. The magnitude of the failure to realize the eighteenthcentury ideal of a rational, humane social order is now manifest in the gothic paradox of power which men create but cannot control. But even in Hume's day it was becoming evident that the attempt to introduce scientific method into moral and religious subjects would misfire. Bitter unresolved controversies about human motives, about the grounds of moral judgement and obligation, the basis of sovereignty, the supporting evidence for . . .

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